Google the words “Dubai” and “sleek” and you’ll be confronted with about 10 million hits, which, for comparative purposes, is about 9.5 million more than you get for “Dublin” and “sleek”. Granted, some links refer to yacht chandlers and cosmetics companies but, even by Gulf standards, few skylines have been as comprehensively (and glamorously) transformed in so little time.
A magnet for foreign workers lured by tax-free salaries, warm winters and shopping malls the size of small countries, Dubai also punches above its weight in hosting world-class events. Sports lovers are spoilt for choice, with golf, tennis, cycling and rugby sevens tournaments, while Formula One fanatics can zip over to Abu Dhabi for the Grand Prix. Big-name performers Janet Jackson and Madness strutted their stuff in the glitzy emirate last year – Elton John and Bryan Adams are inked in for 2017.
Dubai’s already excellent flight connections are about to get even better. Not content with being a regional aviation hub, the city has designs on becoming a global “superhub”. Upon completion, Al Maktoum International Airport is projected to be the world’s largest, handling three times as many passengers as Chek Lap Kok. Don’t be in a hurry to jet away from the Gulf, though – the City of Gold is an ideal winter stopover between Hong Kong and Europe and boasts an array of luxurious hotels and opulent restaurants. Spend the night in an underwater suite at Atlantis The Palm, or book a table at Al Mahara, in the Burj Al Arab hotel. The seafood restaurant is renowned for a floor-to-ceiling aquarium that gives the impression of dining beneath the sea.
Allow time for a desert camping adventure – the scenery is sublime and a litre of petrol costs only 1.70 dirhams (HK$3.60), making it cheaper than a bottle of mineral water. Then there’s the observation tower at Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world and nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building. The lifts reach speeds of 36km/h but a more surreal factoid is that the space-age skyscraper weighs the same as 100,000 elephants. Wonder what that converts to in camels ...
There’s still more to do. Ski Dubai features the world’s first indoor black run and the soon-to-be-completed Dubai Eye will be – you guessed it – the biggest Ferris wheel in the world. There are also plans for a US$1 billion replica of the Taj Mahal but, as this is Arabia’s version of Texas, it’ll be four times bigger. The Mall of the World project has also received the green light. The fully air conditioned stand-alone city and super-shopping facility will welcome up to 80 million visitors a year; making it the world’s largest...
You get the idea.
Dubai has finished top (or bottom) of travel publisher Rough Guide’s Most Overrated Travel Destinations on the Planet, with critics labelling it soulless, artificial and lacking in culture. Indoor skiing, undersea hotels and a dozen desert golf courses lure large numbers of tourists but turn off even more, including the environmentally minded. Unsurprisingly, Dubai has one of the world’s largest carbon footprints.
So how does the diamond in the desert measure up against Hong Kong? Well, Dubai endures stifling summer temperatures and humidity but so does Hong Kong, of course. Dubai has sandstorms, Hong Kong has pollution. Foreigners complain that living in Dubai is like living on a building site – the city seems to have half the world’s supply of construction cranes. Hong Kong probably has the other half. The costs of food and international schools in Dubai are eye-wateringly high and, although there are plenty of watering holes to choose from, alcohol prices are steep. Sensing a common theme yet?
Greedy landlords are another headache (where have you heard that before?). In the Emirates, tenants are expected to stump up as much as a year’s rent in the form of post-dated cheques. Pay in instalments and it’ll end up costing more. There are also agency fees, as well as maintenance and utilities deposits to consider. And that’s assuming you can find your way home. As Dubai’s building boom continues, new streets spring up almost overnight, making navigation extra challenging, even with a satnav.
Dubai’s highways are among the world’s deadliest. Hummer-style vehicles dominate the roads and commuters in sleek (that word again) performance cars weave treacherously through traffic. Who needs the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix when you’ve got rush hour in Dubai? Things have got so bad that a “We Are All Police” smartphone app has been introduced, encouraging citizens to snitch on reckless or law-breaking drivers; more than 80,000 violations were reported last year.The pace of development has led to infrastructure issues. Dubai’s rudimentary sewage network has been stinking up the city for years. Fortunately, residents won’t need to hold their noses for much longer as tunnelling for a state of the art “super sewage” system is due to begin. Knowing Dubai, it’ll probably be the world’s most fragrant sanitation-treatment facility.
Dubai is not an oil producer but, having the Gulf’s most diversified economy, it is heavily reliant on neighbours that are. The saying goes that if you want to know how the economy is faring, count the number of vehicles abandoned in the multistorey car park at Dubai airport by expatriates fleeing bankruptcy. As crude oil prices plummeted last year, the government cut spending and shelved projects, but with Expo 2020 just around the corner, another surge in infrastructure spending can’t be far off. Don’t expect too many hits if you google the words “Dubai” and “austerity”.
According to American NGO Human Rights Watch, labour abuses persist in the United Arab Emirates. Female domestic workers are excluded from regulations that apply to workers in other sectors and migrant construction workers face serious exploitation. South Asian labourers toil in temperatures far exceeding anything ever recorded in Hong Kong for a monthly salary of about 700 dirhams (HK$1,480) - which, coincidentally, is what a single meal costs at the aquarium-themed Al Mahara restaurant.